Virtual Realty

RMB City, Second Life

China Tracy (artist Cao Fei) and UliSigg Cisse (collector Uli Sigg). (Photo courtesy of RMB City)

IT’S HARD TO THINK OF A SINGLE WORK—let alone a work in progress—that got more play in 2008 than RMB City, Cao Fei’s community-building project in the online world of Second Life. Surely boosted by its double-edged benefit of introducing the art-world mainstream to the dark continents of China and the Internet simultaneously, RMB City took turns on display in (physical) exhibition spaces around the world. Meanwhile, an animated tour of Cao’s twinkling confection of a digital city was available on her YouTube channel, and anyone who had a computer with a free gigabyte of memory could download Second Life and visit. But users could only get as far as RMB City’s outer limits until last Friday, when Cao, along with a few dozen friends and fans, celebrated the grand opening. I decided to drop by, too, a few hours after registering a Second Life identity, scrolling through menus to select a name (Petrolhead) and an avatar (a strapping brunet).

Traffic and train delays are unheard-of in Second Life, where you can fly or teleport to your destination. That doesn’t help, though, when you’re still learning to read the map. I figured out how to zap myself to the People’s Palace just as China Tracy, Cao’s avatar, was finishing her address: “[W]e are looking forward to your visit and your continuous attention and intervention to RMB City.” China Tracy’s pixelated mouth didn’t move, but her fingers tapped at an invisible keyboard as her prepared lines passed across the bottom of my screen. “Please make yourself home at RMB City, and let us ignite the wisdom and dazzle of it.”

The project’s CEO, who has the unappetizing handle Freeway Mayo, announced that the next speaker would be the city’s first mayor, UliSigg Cisse, avatar of Swiss collector Uli Sigg. Even here, vernissages are marked with the pedestrian ritual of opening remarks by sponsors and dignitaries. But there is no way to silence avatars in the same room or otherwise set a VIP’s words apart from the general feed, and so the speechifying mingled with stale chat-room icebreakers (“so where’s everybody from”) and non sequiturs like “Mayer Mayer Mayer many Mayers.” Guyullens Skytower—the Second Life representative of Guy Ullens, who opened Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2007—blurted: “couldnt find my trousers this morning.” Loftier discourse didn’t seem forthcoming, since the avatars of the curators who included RMB City in the Yokohama Triennale—Danielbirnbaum Quan, Beatrixruf Shinn, and Hansulrichobrist Magic—didn’t show.

Left: Revelers at the Waterpark. China Tracy and UliSigg Cisse. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)

I moved in to get the obligatory snapshot of China Tracy handing the “Certificate of Mayorship” to UliSigg. A screen-capture function is built into the Second Life interface, but it takes skilled maneuvering and zooming to get a decent angle. Navigation was complicated by hiccups in the program; the convergence of a few dozen users and their bandwidths slowed Second Life’s animation to a series of stiff jerks. I kept impatiently tapping my arrow key, only to find myself nearly standing on China Tracy’s feet. “May we request some avatars to move back from the duo, thanks!” shouted a member of the development team. I retreated to the bar and clicked on a Champagne glass.

After the remarks, festivities began in the People’s Waterpark outside. As giant goldfish somersaulted and an elaborate fireworks display animated the sky, I took an exterior look at the ceremony’s venue. The People’s Palace of RMB City is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but a picture of a panda hangs on its red gates instead of a portrait of Mao, and it is unguarded and empty, save for a few consoles broadcasting local news—a friendly site for distributing information rather than an awe-inspiring monument. The layout of RMB City shifts the horizontal order of urban center and periphery to a vertical axis; while the Forbidden City is in the middle of Beijing, the People’s Palace sits at RMB City’s highest point, overshadowed only by the Bicycle Wheel—a conflation of the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, set to open in Beijing later this year, and Duchamp’s readymade.

Beneath the wheel, the party raged. There was no music but lots of dancing—by touching a “pose ball,” guests could launch their avatars into a sequence of acrobatic moves. To chat about the construction of RMB City with fewer distractions, I let myself be teleported away by Rodion Resistance, a programmer from Avatrian, the Philippines- and San Francisco–based company specializing in Second Life content design that Cao contracted to build most of RMB City. Rodion took me to the People’s Park. The green field there is ringed by a jagged nest of rusty, broken pylons—a dystopian shadow of the National Stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the Beijing Olympics.

Left and right: Celebrations in front of People's Palace. (Photos courtesy of RMB City)

Other avatars ambled over shortly after; as the only flat, open space in RMB City, the People’s Park seems destined to become its default site for congregating. There were a few minor “SLebrities” present, including members of Second Front, the artists’ collective that stages performances around Second Life. I talked to member Eshi Otawara, who first captured my attention at the Waterpark when she announced: “omg i am sticking out like a turd in a punchbowl.” She was referring to her ostentatious violet gown, one of a limited edition of ten that she intends to sell on Second Life’s bustling marketplace for forty thousand lindens apiece—approximately $150.

Suddenly, a giant birthday cake appeared in the middle of the park, in honor of a member of the development team. Unfortunately, she was already offline, celebrating with her colleagues in Beijing. But the party went on. A panda arrived to hand out giant birthday candles. For most of the other users it was lunchtime, but it was after midnight in New York, so I excused myself to take a final flight around the island. Gliding between sloping high-rises with birthday candle still in hand, I glimpsed an object that looked like an upturned Chinese detergent bottle erupting in a cascade; beyond it was a billboard advertising the Yokohama Triennale, splashed with the visage of Hans Ulrich Obrist. I steered toward it for a closer look but got stuck between a bridge span and the corner of an apartment building. Trying to escape, I fiddled with the arrow keys, perhaps overzealously, then a pop-up message suggested I drop the candle, and Second Life stuttered, stopped, and crashed.

Brian Droitcour

Left: Development team members Lovelette Yifu and Steve Memotech with Eshi Otawara. Right: A panda. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)

Sprouse It Up

New York

Left: Artist Imi Knoebel and Julian Schnabel. Right: Debbie Harry. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

IN THE DRAB OF WINTER, poised between presidents and teetering on the edge of a financial abyss, who can afford to be afraid of the red, yellow, and blue? Certainly not Imi Knoebel. This onetime monochrome minimalist began the uncertain 2009 season in Chelsea last Thursday by attracting some of the more vivid art-world personalities to his opening at Mary Boone. Julian Schnabel, in bright yellow scarf and tinted glasses, was quick to anoint Knoebel’s primary-colored paintings on aluminum panels as modern altarpieces. A rosy Matthew Barney and Björk had daughter Isadora in tow, under a pink knit rabbit cap. Red-headed Dia director Philippe Vergne was dressed in optimism—the new armor under Obama—and spoke of his mission this week to save Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty from contamination by oil companies planning to drill into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. “We’re going to win,” he said. I believe him.

Outside in the blustery streets, intrepid gallery-goers bent into the wind as they tumbled toward DJ Spooky/Paul Miller’s debut at Robert Miller, where he was showing a sampler of videos, prints, and posters derived from a trip to Antarctica to capture the sound of ice. “My laptop is my studio,” he explained. Miller was talking fast, and soon I knew why: He had just come from Zanzibar and was a full day ahead of the rest of us. Slipping out of his wake, I sped by Richard Aldrich’s first New York solo show, at Bortolami, which was worth a closer look, and Janet Biggs’s video at Claire Oliver, which is all about obsessive people transcending their limits.

Visiting Robert Barry’s exhibition at Yvon Lambert, I spied a text work in the window that read SOMETHING ONLY YOU CAN REALIZE. So it’s up to us, is it? All I knew was that I couldn’t make it uptown in time for Alex Bag’s opening at the Whitney if I was going to get to SoHo in time for the Louis Vuitton “tribute” to the late fashion designer Stephen Sprouse at Deitch Projects. What to do? Art or fashion? Fashion or art? I stayed downtown, where the line between is too thin to make a difference.

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Right: Whitney curator Chrissie Iles and Dia Foundation director Philippe Vergne.

Bouncers kept minions of gallery-goers huddled behind velvet ropes set up for “Rock on Mars,” the exhibition of Sprouse’s wildly Day-Glo graffiti-printed clothes for men and women (as if anyone there would insist on gender specificity). For newbies slow to realize how deep into cool they had stepped, the show included silver paintings, suspended by white chains from the gallery rafters, of a nearly naked Iggy Pop as a crucified Jesus. “Iggy actually came to Stephen’s studio to pose for that,” Deitch said, identifying the bright orange, ZAP-POW patterned silk pajama suit on a nearby mannequin as the property of artist Kenny Scharf.

We heard whispers of famous faces that bouncers would not let in. Maurizio Cattelan was more accommodating. “Let’s find you some celebrities!” he said, cheerfully picking his way through a crowd that included art beauty Alba Clemente, performers Casey Spooner and Adam Dugas (in sexy fleece pajama suits), artists Terence Koh and Kembra Pfahler, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, dealer Andrea Rosen (one of the few dressed in vintage Sprouse), architect Peter Marino (in leathers), and supermodel Agyness Deyn. “Where is Donatella?” Cattelan bellowed. He’s a funny guy.

I looked for Marc Jacobs, who had just unveiled his new Sprouse-inspired line around the corner at the Vuitton store and was nominally the host of this evening, which also celebrated a thick Sprouse monograph packaged—instead of published—by the Padilha brothers, Roger and Mauricio, fashion publicists. They were there, but no Jacobs, who had already moved on to the afterparty at Bowery Ballroom. Instead, I found designer Anna Sui. Admiring the hot-pink wig on the large drag clown heading to the black-light room below a bevy of stylists, photographers, makeup people, and Paper-magazine editors, I had to ask, “Is this an art-world party or a fashion party?” “It’s a pupu platter,” Sui observed. “No difference.”

Left: Publicist Mauricio Padilha and Details founder Annie Flanders. Right: Model Agyness Deyn.

Hired yellow cabs topped with light-box WELOVESPROUSE.COM ads ferried guests to the Delancey Street club, where an even larger copse of pupu people was corralled between roped corridors on the street. “Come on,” said a man who sidled up to the door. “Gene Pressman,” he said. “From Barney’s?” Fashion has its privileges. But art has more staying power. I stood my ground and was waved inside just in time to catch Deborah Harry, wearing purple and black Sprouse, give full throat to “Rip Her to Shreds,” one of three Blondie songs she sang to recorded music in a spirited performance. It felt very Mudd Club in there. Maybe it was the music; or maybe it was the presence of Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details when it was the chronicle of downtown society; or maybe it was onetime fashion muse Edwige Belmore downing Champagne in yellow silk Sprouse trousers. “We were just so awesome,” she marveled. Aren’t we still?

“This is the new way to do an exhibition,” Deitch said, pointing to the pink neon Vuitton signs and slick videos of Sprouse and his kick-ass runway shows. The marketing way? “These people are going to roll this show out in cities all over,” he said. “They really know how to get the word out.” And the bucks.

Back on Wooster Street Friday night, I stopped into the Art Production Fund’s storefront lab for the debut of the reality TV show Delusional Downtown Divas, an art-world spoof by art-world offspring Lena Dunham, whose parents are Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham. (The show itself is a commission from newly revived Index magazine.) I had to elbow my way between dealer Barbara Gladstone, Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, and novelist A. M. Homes just to get some standing room. Nate Lowman was on-screen, playing himself during a studio visit with Dunham, acting the part of an art-star wannabe eager to jump-start a career. What could she be thinking?

Left: Artists Paricia Coffie and Billy Sullivan. Right: Architects Peter Marino and Juan Carlos.

From there it was just east of the sun and west of the moon to reach the Park Avenue Armory for a workshop production of Last Dance, hosted by theater director Brennan Gerard and choreographer Ryan Kelly’s Moving Theater. In a fourth-floor room, three dancers, one of them just crazy enough to seem dangerous, took turns limning the last moments of their virginity or their last day of school or their last supper with a parent, when suddenly a tall, bearded man seated in the folding chair beside architect Charles Renfro started singing the show’s title song, by disco diva Donna Summer, in the most pristine countertenor voice imaginable. Remember this name: Jason Abrams. He is going to be big.

Saturday night brought snow to New York and that color genius Mary Heilmann to both 303 Gallery locations. One was a show of brilliant new paintings and the other a group show curated by Heilmann featuring younger artists from the personal cult she has fostered with an unusual degree of affection. Paula Cooper brought curator Bob Nickas back to her temple with another of his thematic group exhibitions. Though titled “Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice,” he had left little to chance. “I think it’s all about form and balance,” ventured John Miller, whose gold-leafed plastic knights and weapons sit on Carol Bove’s carpet of peacock feathers. Louise Lawler contributed an unfamiliar 1993 text work painted on a wall by the reception desk. It read: ONCE THERE WAS A LITTLE BOY AND EVERYTHING TURNED OUT ALRIGHT. The End.

Which always puts us back at the beginning.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: 303 Gallery's Lisa Spellman. Right: Artist Kembra Pfahler with Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen.

Maryland on My Mind

New York

Left: Filmmaker Jeff Krulik and critic Michael Azerrad. Right: A still from Jeff Krulik's Led Zeppelin Played Here. (All photos: Hannah Shields)

BARRING JOHN FAHEY, curmudgeonly master of American-primitive fingerstyle guitar, whose gnomic, self-penned liner notes mythologized the Takoma Park, Maryland, of his childhood, no artist has done as much for suburban Maryland as Jeff Krulik, underground video documentarian, obsessive chronicler of obsessives, and maker (with John Heyn) of one of the funniest docs of the past thirty years (maybe ever), Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986). Having no affinity for the state besides a love of Fahey’s music and a repulsion-fascination with the central-Atlantic accent (Philly, Baltimore, and environs—listen for words like Coke and bowling), I was mildly surprised to find myself hoofing through freezing rain and under the Gowanus Expressway to Light Industry, an empty room in a massive converted industrial building in Sunset Park, to see a minifestival of Krulik’s works-in-progress. Ever since I saw a Krulik retrospective in San Francisco years ago, I’ve been on the lookout for this amateur auteur’s compellingly geeky docs wherever I may find them.

Shot outside the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland, before a 1986 Judas Priest concert, Heavy Metal Parking Lot offers all the mullets, spandex, feathered perms, central Atlantic o’s (“I’d jump his bones”), and real-life Beavis and Butt-head behavior any aging student of ’80s America could want. It’s impossible not to laugh at these people, but the video avoids arch condescension through Krulik and Heyn’s honest idiot glee and unabashedly nerdy interest in the mysteries of fandom. For years after its making, HMPL circulated through an ad hoc network of friends and mondo videotape traders, winding up in many a touring band’s bus VCR, notably Nirvana’s. Its “success” led Krulik to make a number of other “parking lot” docs, of which the best is Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1998), shot ten years later outside the same arena and featuring overweight, middle-aged, utterly normal women exhibiting a dedication to their musical god that would shame the most ardent Deadhead.

Sadly, neither film was on the bill on Tuesday, nor were some of Krulik’s other peaks: Public Access Gibberish (1990), King of Porn (1996), and Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997). For this was his “Nuggets”—unreleased, unfinished works with an overarching rock-'n'-roll theme. After a brief introduction (“Jeff is the missing link between Errol Morris and Allen Funt”) by Thomas Beard, one of Light Industry’s young proprietors, Krulik appeared, bald and gray, but with a fresh face and irrepressibly boyish energy. The standing-room-only audience, mostly twenty-something hipsters and film students, welcomed him warmly. The space heater was fired up and the lights turned off.

The first offering, The Leisure World Comedy and Humor Club, was one of the few that didn’t concern rock. Shot at a weekly gathering of geriatrics who recite (often off-color) jokes to each other from a lectern, it felt like a living Drew Friedman cartoon and charmed the pants off the audience. The next, Meet James’ Parents, followed a youngish mom and dad who have been ditched by their achingly self-conscious teenage son at an outdoor pop-punk concert as they unintentionally get backstage passes and meet James’s heroes. When James hears what he missed for thinking his parents hopelessly uncool, he says (naturally), “That sucks!” Also charming as hell.

Left: Light Industry's Thomas Beard and Ed Halter. Right: Michael Azerrad and Jeff Krulik.

Then we moved to relatively unstructured segments of what is clearly Krulik’s current obsession—’60s rock in the Maryland/Washington, DC, region. Including Ambassador Theater Psychedelic Memories (an oral history of DC’s short-lived Fillmore-like psychedelic music hall) and Led Zeppelin Played Here (an investigation into the truth behind the legend that Zep played their first DC-area gig at the tiny, unglamorous Community Center in Wheaton, Maryland, in 1969 on the night of Nixon’s first inauguration), the amorphous project became tedious at times, with rambling anecdotes by aging local rock fans, record collectors, and former garage-band members. An extended shot of a telephone on a desk as the director interviewed Nils Lofgren about Hendrix at the Ambassador was typical no-budget Krulik but also awkwardly exposed the limitations of limitations. Some of the audience snuck out between sections.

We were on more familiar, amusing territory with Heavy Metal Picnic, a film Krulik edited from hours of video shot by an amateur cameraman/metalhead at an all-day outdoor party in a Maryland field in 1985, featuring third-rate local metal bands and more onion-skin shorts, pubestaches, and devil-horn hand signals than anyone ever thought possible. (The next time a twenty-something openly envies me for being an adolescent during the ’80s, I will hand him/her a DVD of HMPL and HMP. Trust me—it was pure hell.)

After a very short short about a middle-aged “throat guitarist,” the lights came up and Krulik was interviewed by Our Band Could Be Your Life author and Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad. “I didn’t breathe the whole time” the films were playing, Krulik admitted; he seemed generally nervous, if flattered. Azerrad noted that he’d first seen HMPL in Nirvana’s tour bus and tried to link Krulik’s practice—and its viral distribution network—to ’80s hardcore and indie-rock DIY subcultures. Krulik is clearly someone who doesn’t think too deeply about what he does, giving the impression that his many short films are merely the result of mild OCD. “A collector mentality,” he said. “Madness.” Over one hundred films into his oeuvre, he is still preserving the castoffs of pop fandom and creating his own version of John Ford’s Monument Valley in the tract homes, minimalls, and McMansions of Maryland. He loves YouTube. You can find him there.

Fire in Cairo


Left: Artist Essam Maarouf, Cairo Biennale commissioner Ehab El-Labban, and Cairo Biennale president Mohsen Shaalan. Right: My Barbarian's Jade Gordon. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

ARRIVING AT THE CAIRO AIPORT somewhat late on December 17, I barreled through the thick, anarchic traffic of Heliopolis in my friend’s desert-worthy Land Rover Defender and arrived miraculously at my downtown hotel within an hour. Navigating the few blocks to the Townhouse Gallery, one of the fourth Photo Cairo’s venues, however, was not so simple. The concierge had run out of maps, and by the time we arrived at the space, after exploring every dark side street between the hotel and our destination, the exhibition’s title, “The Long Shortcut,” seemed all too appropriate. Set in an alley lined with auto-mechanic shops and tables filled with men sucking on hookahs, the illuminated gallery compound was a welcome sight.

Inside the Townhouse, the most evocative installation easily belonged to Hala Elkoussy, who constructed a sort of shrine—decorated with ornate mirrors and lamps, red curtains, and old photographs—in one of the palazzo’s rooms. In the factory space, Ahmed Kamel mounted a series of photographs critiquing the fetishism of Egyptian wedding ceremonies. Of course, any art exhibition in Cairo must compete with the mesmerizing dissonance of the streets—an onslaught of noise and other sensual stimulations. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I thought. Down in the alley, a neighbor’s door was thrown open to expose a room that would have been at home in the exhibition: makeshift cabinets stacked with pieces of wood and cardboard, an ancient TV and a photographic portrait, a box of Marlboros, a child’s toy car. Adjacent to the gallery’s entrance, a man prepared to paint a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, taking advantage of a rare functioning streetlight next to the building.

Left: Townhouse Gallery's William Wells with Ed DeCarbo, chair of the department of art history at Pratt Institute. Right: Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni (left).

I snagged a ride from artist Basim Magdy to Photo Cairo’s next venue (and also the exhibition’s organizing institution), the Contemporary Image Collective. The space was flush with works nostalgic for the imagined glamour of the past, including faux film stills by Larissa Sansour as well as Maha Maamoun’s Domestic Tourism II, a video montage of movie clips using the pyramids as a backdrop. (An homage, perhaps, to Egypt’s recent decision to copyright the wondrous monuments.) Back on the street, I gawked at a fantastic truck piled with several bundles too many; the driver gawked back and called me a piece of candy.

From there, I made my way to the Garden City Club, a decadent midcentury building where the Friends of the Townhouse reception—which served as the Photo Cairo afterparty—was in full swing. I interrupted a card game between the three doormen, one of whom ushered me to the fickle elevator leading to the penthouse. It was like stepping into the setting for a novel: the apartment of an Anglo expat living an incongruously luxurious life amid the ruins of history. After a stop at the intimate wainscoted bar, I walked onto the crowded terrace and straight into a cloud of cigarette smoke. Visiting from Istanbul, Rodeo Gallery’s Sylvia Kouvali gushed, “You’ve got to see Doa Aly’s gorgeous video—it’s the best work in the exhibition,” referring to a work at another of the four venues, the Downtown Apartment, a rented space in a dusty old office building. Notoriously elusive Townhouse director William Wells, organizer of the first Photo Cairo, lived up to his reputation and failed to make an appearance.

For a Mediterranean city, Cairo is surprisingly colorless, a quality exacerbated by the gray pollution spewing from the crush of dilapidated taxis. However, the plain building facades conceal rich ornamentation, producing a striking dichotomy between exterior and interior. Once you enter an opulent mosque or Coptic church, the buildings come alive. Such was the case the following evening at a party given in honor of artist Jennifer Steinkamp by the US ambassador, Margaret Scobey, at her residence in an enormous gated compound on the Nile. I had entered the Old South, where a famous Egyptian opera baritone sang “Old Man River,” drawing a connection between the Mississippi river and the Nile, according to our hostess. Across the smorgasbord feast, laden with a huge turkey, I spotted the members of performance collective My Barbarian, in town to hold workshops for their Christmas Eve performance, Eleven Human Senses, at Townhouse.

Left: Artist Jennifer Steinkamp with MAK Center director Kimberli Meyer. Right: US public-affairs officer Haynes Mahoney.

Once our car made it past the perfunctory dog sniffing, we arrived at the Marriott (formerly a palace built for a French queen), which was extravagantly decked out with white Christmas decor. At a dinner held nearby at Abou El Sid with the US delegation, which included Steinkamp and MAK Center Los Angeles director Kimberli Meyer, My Barbarian’s Alex Segade noted how surprised he was at the abundance of alcohol: “I expected it would be impossible to get.”

On Saturday morning, over at the Carlton Hotel (where I was being hosted), I awoke to the five o’clock call to prayer, apparently emanating from a speaker right next to my bed. I bided my time until a little before noon, when I set off across the river to the main venue, arriving at the Art Palace (on the grounds of the Opera House) along with seemingly everyone else. Gathered at the entrance in front of Lebanese artist (and winner of the biennale’s grand prize) Lara Baladi’s Tower of Hope were Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni and his bodyguards, the US embassy’s Haynes Mahoney, biennale prizewinner Adel El-Siwi, My Barbarian, and artist Khaled Hafez. Hafez told me that this edition had been completely restructured to promote a more cohesive vision. In the past, artists were selected by their respective countries; this year, all but those from Spain, Italy, and the United States were chosen by a panel of artists.

The show seemed both fairy tale and nightmare. Just inside the entrance was Paman Pereira’s installation of household furniture and objects suspended from the ceiling. A roomful of giant “corporate” wolves in suits made up Wael Darwish’s Team Work, while a striking video by Adel Abidin depicted a mosque made of sugar cubes being devoured by ants, questioning the relative strength of spiritual and physical impulses.

Left: Artist Moataz Nasr and dealer Nabil Shamma. Right: Artist Kimsooja with curators Bisi Silva and Lars Bang Larsen.

That night, Austrian curator Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein hosted a dinner party at the famous Greek Club, on Talat Harb Square. Formerly an intellectual haunt, the restaurant is located below the headquarters of the liberal El-Ghad party, which was firebombed just over a month ago. Sentimentality reared its head again as a group at the next table broke into a chorus of the patriotic Sayed Darwish song “Ahu da el-Li Sar” (This Is What Happened), led by curator and chanteuse Lana Mushtaq. Just after midnight, the hordes arrived from a party hosted by the Spanish delegation, and we fled the smoke-filled club.

On Sunday night, in the Fustat neighborhood, artist Moataz Nasr opened his beautiful new space Darb 1718 with the exhibition “Crossings,” made up of selections from a show held last spring at Art Paris. From the party on the terrace, we watched Lebanese artist Ninar Esber’s spectacular fiery apparition sing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Arabic from a roof in the distance. A whirling dervish performed on a lower terrace; meanwhile, the gender-bending male belly dancer in Kader Attia’s video provoked horror on the part of a macho Egyptian banker. “It is a shame!” he cried. “And he is even smiling!” Esber’s atmospheric sound piece, in which a seductive female voice pronounces words from Arabic erotic literature, emanated from a ceramic kiln in the garden. In a dark room, another Abidin video showed Iraqi boys training to be barbers by shaving cream off balloons—which inevitably blow up. Children from the neighborhood wandered in; the vibe was nonchalant. “There is so much happening in Cairo now,” Jakob Myschetzky, a Danish activist, argued in between bites of hors d’oeuvres. “Politics is dead, so art is one of the few ways to engage.” Absorbing the Mediterranean winter breeze on the rooftop, I contemplated my day at the pyramids, only recently secured by barbed wire. A few days later, Gaza would erupt in violence, underlining again the fragility of politics.

Cathryn Drake

Left: A whirling dervish. Right: Artists Basim Magdy, Hala Elkoussy, and Doa Aly.

Secret Santos

New York

Left: Julie Potratz dances to Billy Idol's “Dancing with Myself.” Right: Aaron Bondaroff. (Except where noted, all photos: Miriam Katz)

WHILE MANY OF THIS YEAR’S holiday parties have been shadowed by a dour mood in step with the economic nosedive, leave it to Deitch Projects to demonstrate that it’s possible to whip up a jovial atmosphere without breaking what’s left of the bank. The downtown stalwart’s “Weird Holiday” kicked off at Santos’ Party House in Chinatown Tuesday night in a spirit of do-it-yourself good cheer, presenting a roster of campy amateur acts curated by Kansas City collective Whoop Dee Doo Productions and hosted by scenester Aaron Bondaroff (who insists on being known as either “A-Ron,” which I can just about countenance, or “the Downtown Don,” which I can’t).

Bondaroff launched proceedings with a video hyping usual suspects (or “fuckin’ hustlers, man,” as he prefers to call them) Aaron Young, Nate Lowman, Dan Colen, et. al. Perhaps force-feeding partygoers with these folks, plus assorted self-regarding dealers and collectors, wasn’t the best idea for an introduction; even our MC seemed embarrassed by the queasy note of moneyed self-congratulation, and whoever it was that bellowed “This sucks!!!” was clearly even less convinced. The first act, a pint-size hip-hop duo, was ushered hurriedly onstage, and the evening began in earnest. They didn’t look much older than twenty-one in total, and sure enough: “We had to perform,” announced the cute-as-a-button rapper. “It was the only way we were allowed into the club.”

Left: Laurendarling & the Ladies of Fakework. Right: Amanda Lepore.

Some not-so-helpful postperformance budgetary suggestions from Bondaroff (to Deitch: “Fire half your staff and buy some art!”) prompted a quick round of shoe-tossing before Whoop Dee Doo’s Jaimie Warren and Matt Roche made their appearance. Resplendent in chip-wrapper-encrusted catsuit (Warren) and burn-victim Santa outfit (Roche), they introduced Laurendarling & the Ladies of Fakework, a bevy of antler-wearing, baton-twirling go-go girls who danced around to no great purpose but successfully won the crowd back from their beers. After a not entirely dissimilar routine from some dancing furniture, the stage was transformed into a game-show set for a round of “Holiday Hoopla.”

“And this is Raven and Amber Ferguson, from Crown Heights, Brooklyn!” Perking up at the mention of my own hood, I watched as the two slightly bemused (and who wouldn’t be?) kids were put through their paces by a big-haired hostess in a chaotic battle against the ever-stylish Metalmags, aka Erica Magrey and Collin Cunningham. (Hostess: “So, you guys are from out of town? I heard you were from outer space, actually.” Magrey: “That’s right. We met on an orbiting station.”) Ultimately triumphant, the Fergusons smiled graciously to their extraterrestrial competitors and left the stage in a shower of glitter, cheered on by the likes of Ryan McGinley, Terence Koh, and Mike Smith.

From here on out, it’s single images that stick in the memory. There was, for example, that pair of interpretive dancers—one corpulent, one not so—and that devil-horned Santa astride a giant pantomime donkey. Then there was that folky singer insisting that we “listen for just two minutes” because we “might learn something” and that Lady Liberty–hosted “Mount Rushmore Staring Contest.” And what about that senior couple looking mildly traumatized as admirers flocked around Amanda Lepore, or Deitch himself installed discreetly at the back of the room, playing his customary indulgent-parent role? One late act, a dance to Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” performed by the star of Laurel Nakadate’s upcoming feature film Stay the Same Never Change (and her dummy double), was something of a highlight, but the announcement that followed—“Now welcome the New York Ukulele Ensemble!”—had me scrambling for the door. Happy holidays.

Michael Wilson

Left: Artist Jaimie Warren (left). Right: Designer Peggy Noland.

A Farewell to Arms

New York

Left: Artist Brice Marden and Rivington Arms's Mirabelle Marden. Right: Arden Wohl with Rivington Arms's Melissa Bent. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

MEMORIES OF RIVINGTON ARMS form a palimpsest: the old, bright white gallery space on Rivington Street; cadged to-go margaritas in Styrofoam cups from the Hat down the street; the ever-present opening sidewalk sprawl. There were the close quarters; the move north, to Joey Ramone Place, just off the Bowery; dinners at Kelly & Ping; the casual, louche booths at sundry art fairs; the parade of ghostly artists now gone from the gallery; and the familiar presence of those who stayed. A phalanx of Rivington Arms veterans, past and present, guarded the door Thursday night at the gallery’s last-ever opening, for “Geraniums,” the debut solo show by the young New York–based artist Uri Aran: Darren Bader, Lansing-Dreiden, Mathew Cerletty, John Finneran, and, of course, the two dealers themselves, Melissa Bent and Mirabelle Marden, champagne very much in hand.

Rivington Arms, a gallery known since it opened in 2001 for a steady, Argus-eyed prescience, will now take the lead once more and close in January. Not that we were meant to mourn: “Make it sound fun!” said Marden, laughing off my suggestion that the torrential rain and freezing cold outside had somehow conspired to push the gallery off, Viking-style, on a watery, storm-tossed pyre. “We’re too young to die.”

This was a fact no one had told Aran, whose diffuse work—a neon dolphin hung on the wall; scattered, smudged billiard balls on a table; and a wooden desk, drawers out, tilted on its side and giving birth to a scrolling, electric-powered mock aquarium—included actual, if minuscule, jets of flame surrounding a canister of fish food on a rear pedestal. The presence of free-flowing gas, and of certain artists smoking nearby in the spirit of revelers celebrating their last night in a condemned building, threatened to dovetail in a theatrical, premature, and unintentionally fiery finale: not the send-off anyone had in mind.

Left: Artists Elizabeth Neel and Uri Aran. Right: Artists Mathew Cerletty, John Finneran, and Darren Bader.

Bader—sometime Rivington Arms curator, artist, and ubiquitous friend—copped to being only “one-third” nostalgic. The other two-thirds? “Horny” and, looking out on the deluge outside, “wet.” Cerletty, when pressed, went for “end of an era.” (Somebody had to say it, I guess.) Other artists (Elizabeth Neel, Matt Keegan, Hope Atherton, Jeremy Eilers, Georgia Sagri, Ronnie Bass, and Davis Rhodes) and dealers (Gavin Brown, Casey Kaplan, RENTAL’s Joel Mesler, Museum 52’s Matthew Dipple) stopped by to pay their respects. Over the years, “you get used to the repetition,” said Marden, gazing around. “It hasn’t really sunk in.”

It was indeed hard to be particularly sentimental walking the long blocks between the gallery and its after-party, at the Pink Pony, as heretofore unknown Houston Street headwinds and river formations blasted away anything but the desire to be dry and indoors. In the back of the restaurant, friends clustered in booths. Aran beamed in the corner. “They’ve been so kind,” the artist said, gesturing over to the head table, where Mirabelle and Melissa were holding court. What were his plans now that his newfound gallery was vanishing? “Make a lot of work,” he said, and, in the immediate short term, “Try not to get too drunk.”

Family (Brice and Helen and Melia Marden, Eliza Bent) circled around. The liquor ran out, mercifully, just before things got maudlin. The familiarity of the scene was its own kind of reassurance: This was the exact same gathering of friends that, over the past seven years, had become something solid and reliable. There would be a next time. Cerletty, making for the door, paused to bid his now-former reps farewell: “There’s another party where we all hug each other and stuff, right?”

Zach Baron

Left: Mirabelle Marden, Uri Aran, and Melissa Bent. Right: The crowd at Rivington Arms.